Digital transformation is coming to retail.

Changing, Competitive and Complex: Retail is Ripe for Partners

By 2019, the top 30 percent of retailers will be actively engaged in digital transformation, says IDC.

Few industries have been buffeted by digital disruption more than retail, which shed more than 100,000 jobs in 2017.

While many pundits reflexively blame, retail professionals try to adjust. As they do, they create opportunities for clever tech companies, including many channel providers. As the lines between physical and online retail operations merge, it's clear there’s a big role for partners to play in helping with digital transformation.

Consider the news emanating from this year’s National Retail Federation’s (NRF) 2018 Big Show, which was held earlier this week in New York City. There, some of the biggest names in technology displayed their latest wares and new ideas. Without question, vendors are prepping partners for action. 

Take Salesforce, which doubled down on the number of partners it brought to this year’s NRF conference. This year, the company showcased more than 50 Salesforce partners, ISVs and consultants on the exhibition floor. There was also a big theatre where partners contributed about 50 percent of the content, according to the company. “There’s a close collaborative presence with our partners at the show,” Neeracha Taychakhoonavudh, senior vice president, partner and industry innovation at Salesforce, told us. “Two years ago, this was not what we did at NRF,” she said. 

Today, retail is one of the vendor’s biggest focus industries, and one of two industries where the vendor has a fully-aligned salesforce. (The other is financial services.) "Our retail partners give us scale and specialized expertise,” said Taychakhoonavudh. ISVs provide additional solutions on top of the Salesforce platform that address marketing, commerce and service, as well as niche application opportunities in retail, according to Taychakhoonavudh, pictured below. As she sees it, partners play a big role in filling in the white spaces. This includes, consulting partners, which help stand up solutions. 

Extreme Networks was also at NRF, showing its recently introduced product, ExtremeLocation. ExtremeLocation is a solution that allows brick and mortar retailers to identify, engage and provide personalized guest experiences in-store via a shopper’s mobile device. A cloud-hosted technology, ExtremeLocation allows retailers to scale thousands of branches and connect to 100,000 access points to gather customer and sales associate analytics. The analytics include new or repeat visitors, the amount of time browsing in-store, heat maps, peak and off-peak hours, visitors to associates ratio per zone and customer location down to 1 to 2 meters (using Extreme’s new beacon capability.) 

Of the seven vertical industries that Extreme prioritizes, retail is one of the tech company's fastest-growing. As with Salesforce, there’s lots of opportunity for Extreme partners to add value, according to Bob Nilsson, director of vertical solutions marketing at Extreme. This is true of nearly every type of partner Extreme engages, be it a systems integrator, VAR or MSP.

While ExtremeLocation is also a fit for other vertical industries, such as education, government, hospitality and health care, the technology is ideally suited to help retailers. “Retail is facing the most competition from online and [customer/user engagement] gives [brick and mortar] vendors a leg up to fight back,” said Nilsson. 

While many of the Extreme’s 6,000 global partners have specialized hardware, service and support expertise, only a fraction have vertical applications expertise. Given the opportunities that await in retail and other sectors, Extreme is encouraging partners to beef up their core capabilities and vertical expertise via the vendor’s training programs. 

“Some of our partners who focus on different verticals, say hospitality or stadiums, have experience with the retail portion of that and can expand that expertise into the retail vertical,” Nilsson said. In addition to encouraging existing partners to develop new capabilities,  Extreme is also welcoming new partners to its program. 

Then there's Microsoft, a Chairman Circle Sponsor at the NRF’s Big Show conference. This year, Microsoft showcased how customers and partners are on the forefront of intelligent retail, using AI, mixed reality, IoT and blockchain, in connected solutions for customer engagement, workforce empowerment, operational insights and business transformation. 

Two partners, Xenia and Aprimo, showcased their Azure-based solutions, for example. Software developer Xenia Retail markets itself as changing the point of sale (POS) narrative. The vendor has a retail app that eliminates shopping carts and checkout lines. Using a phone or a tablet provider by a retailer, customers get access to tools and data such as crowd-sourced reviews, buying history and suggestions for additional items. With some apps, customers can hold their device in front of a product, select the quantity, add it to their cart, and complete a purchase in the app or at a self-checkout terminal. Xenia is based on Windows and runs on Azure. The company is integrating Power BI, Dynamics 365 and Outlook into its offerings, according to Microsoft. 

Aprimo, meantime, focuses on marketing operations and digital asset management technology and offers an Azure-based solution to big retailers, including CVS, Pandora, Ikea and Dick’s Sporting Goods, to name several. 

There’s plenty of partner opportunity in retail, according to Microsoft. The Redmond, Wash., software giant believes five technologies, in particular, will drive intelligent retail in 2018. They are: advanced analytics, artificial intelligence, cloud-based architecture, IoT, and conversational commerce, or customer service requests conducted, at least in part, through conversational AI applications.

Little wonder that IDC predicts the top 30 percent of retailers will be actively engaged in digital transformation by 2019. As they transform, they will drive organizational shifts and investment strategies in foundational platform technologies that are cloud-based, AI-enabled and composable. 

Reflecting the on-going technology advancements, there was some new and expanded programming this year at Retail’s Big Show, including the Innovation Lab that featured three unique areas: products, technologies and topics that addressed the retail experience of tomorrow and beyond. For example, there was Retail 2020, a showcase of technologies of the future devoted to AR, AI, ML, facial recognition, big data, robotics and more. The exhibition helped to explain how innovation is transforming the way retailers market, connect and serve their customers. There was also an emerging technology showcase with hands-on product demos, and an innovation lab stage with sessions that highlighted innovative technologies, consumer expectations and trends, etc. 



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